Up at 0445 hours; quick shower, then wake up Richard next door, then finish packing; final leg after all the planning over last four years; the fulfilment of a dream… unreal, unbelievable, yet happening; taxi at 0545 hours, off to airfield, crunching biscuits from room into mouth- energy throughout day!
0615 hours, totally dark at airfield- Richard wheeling out microlight, me talking to Angie and other microlighters come to shepherd us down the coast in their machines; phone rings- interviews with media in New Zealand, Britain; me standing on own in darkness, connected to world- Britain still yesterday there, living 9 hours day before-NZ two hours later already in brilliant morning sunshine- surreal to stand there in pre-dawn darkness, sandwiched between the past and the future, like some sort of time traveller- surreal thoughts interrupted by sound of thumping in night air in distance, getting louder- Dick Smith, Australian entrepreneur, likened to Richard Branson, heading up the coast to guide us in- I zip up my suit, go for quick pee behind hangar- my heart thumping, struggling to come to terms with reality that, after a very tiring, taxing yet wonderful 54 days, this is our LAST flight- Sydney, final destination, just 23 miles down coast; no time for more reflection; roaring, chattering sound of Jet Ranger overhead, navigation lights flashing against paling dawn sky above, landing lights on, settling down nearby; Richard warming up the microlight, yelling directions for me to get aboard; I pause a few moments on my own in comparative seclusion of hangar corner surrounded by the anticipation and heightened awareness that this is another of those rare, rare days in my life, indelibly burned onto my memory forever- the completion of a mission, the fulfilment of a dream cherished and nurtured over many years- the fulfilment of all our planning and focus these last 54 days; we are here, on target, ready for our grand entrance into Sydney via the forbidden harbour route opened up so kindly by Dick Smith, an amazing, amazing, amazing man now hovering above us, settling down amongst the swirling of dust and the chattering of rotors and roar of jet turbine- smell of damp dust and aviation gas pungent in the air around me, mixing with the fragrance of dew-covered trampled weeds and grass and me, in the midst of it all, wanting to capture, to prolong the moment, to hold it and savour it and record it forever- the cold of the aluminium hangar side against me, cocooned in my private world, saying "thank you Lord, for protecting us through all those storms an turbulence and tropical storms… thank you for preserving me to savour and taste and record this moment of isolation alone, not wanting the moment to pass, revelling in the improbability of the moment- am I really just outsideSydney- have we almost done it…I learned, long, long ago, through Jon Cooks advice, that it is not over until we pass the finish line- until the fat lady sings- so I reluctantly shake my head in bemused wonder as I use my white cane to find my way back towards the small group of people talking animatedly as the whine of the Jet Ranger rotors and engine dies away.
A few moments later I am approached by an exuberant, Australian-accented man and I am grabbed in a strong handshake from Dick Smith- a 63 year young man with a heart of gold- one of the world's great visionaries and aviation adventurers who continues to live life to the full.
He made his fortune starting a small electrical company in Australia with his great wife Pip with some Australian $600, and a few years later sold the nation-wide business for $25 million (now turning over a billion a year), and has gone on, as all true entrepreneurs, to continue to found and brilliantly manage other innovative businesses, whilst also undertaking five of the most astounding flights around the world in a variety of aircraft, including becoming the first person to fly a helicopter around the world.
We confirm routes, radio frequencies, and again emphasise the importance of no helicopters getting in front of us- their downward, swirling turbulence one of the most deadly dangers for a small craft like microlight. We learn that the TV channels, very sensibly, have agreed to share the footage from one chopper instead of four filling the sky, all wanting to be in the same position for those great shots of us flying past the Opera House and Harbour Bridge etc.
Dawn is lightening the sky, so we all head for our aircraft, with me still a bit detached, trying to capture the magic of the moment, that last flight, forever in my mind.
Air soon full of the sound of microlight motors starting up, drowned by the growing whine and then roar of Dick's Jet Ranger powering up nearby; he takes off first, allowing us some few minutes for the vortices in the air to settle before we take off…
Richard and I taxi to the top of the grass runway, with me suddenly realising that, in the emotions of the moment, that I have not yet put on my gloves, secured my helmet or even powered up my navigation system, which I do hurriedly, reminding myself once again that check-lists are what keep pilots alive…
Within moments we are roaring down the runway, with me listening to my ground speed build up before take-off, with my headphones also full of chatter from Dick soaring away and the other microlights radioing their respective positions and take-off sequences.
Within moments I am surrounded by that all too-familiar sound and feel of the wind rushing past us, with dawn breaking all around us as we follow a local river down to the sea, then turn right to follow the coast the last 23 miles to the Heads, entrance to the world famous Sydney Harbour.
Now my heart is thumping a bit, full of anticipation, marvelling at the fact we have been given permission through Dick Smith's influence from the civil aviation authorities to fly into Sydney Harbour- totally out of bounds for all but helicopters usually, who have strict instructions to stay within helicopter air lanes.
We agreed before take-off that we would NOT fly under the Harbour Bridge, as, whilst we would probably get away with it, it would not be fair on Dick, who had vouched for our integrity during the flight.
Within about 20 minutes we are close to the entrance to the Harbour, with the accompanying microlights in formation around us reluctantly peeling off and returning to the airfield.
We bank to the right, now at just 1,000 feet, with my altimeter reminding me of our low altitude.
Increasing engine revs. And pulling the bar hard back we literally plummet down to the requested 500 feet altitude in this area, leaving the TV chopper complaining good-naturedly that they cannot dive at that rate.
We start the magical flight towards the Harbour Bridge in the distance, with Richard describing it to me over our comms. what a wonderful sight it is, now with the sun in the sky producing a glowing, shining radiance on the Opera House and the Bridge through a hole in the clouds, almost like a spotlight from heaven especially switched on after poor weather, lightening the arena for our final act and flight, all being recorded by the TV chopper above and behind us.
We clear our intention to spend about five/ten minutes flying within the magical arena bordered by the Bridge and the Opera House and the ferry terminals across the harbour, and confirm all helicopters on station and aware of our impending movements.
Then we put our little craft into some of the most intense extreme manoeuvres since the start of the flight, banking at some unbelievable angles according to my instrumentation, as we bank and weave in figure of eights around this breath-taking arena lit up for us in glorious radiant sunshine, with the G-forces forcing us down into our seats.
I just wanted to shout T-I-G-E-R! "over and over again, but this would both deafen Richard and drown out my essential information rushing through my earphones, confirming altitude, compass heading and angle of bank in a maelstrom of platted verbiage, weaving their own magic to swirl around in my mind, somehow detached, yet at the same time appearing totally orderly and normal, harmonising in clear logic and form, singing their own audio picture in vibrant colours, like a harpist playing beautiful music that was emitting and vibrating in visual mathematical harmonies of the laws of physics- airflow, lift, gravity, freedom and joy expressed with pure abandon within the secure embrace of the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge- rare and precious playground, loaned to us for a few precious minutes whilst the world passes us by, oblivious that for us it has temporarily stopped…
Probably the above doesn't make much sense to you, but it is an attempt to express the inexpressible- like trying to describe the grandeur and magnificence of a glowing sunset to someone who was not there…
I felt like a dolphin, frolicking and exuberantly expressing it's freedom and joy after the restraints of the preceeding eight weeks. I was so happy, so intensely happy at that moment, yet knowing how fleeting the moment was, praying that our wing-mounted video camera was working to record the moment for all time.
Few people have ever, ever been given permission to fly in that hallowed and protected air space between the Bridge and the Opera House, and here we were, with the freedom to express the joy and celebration of completing our epic flight…
We reluctantly checked our time, knowing we were scheduled to land at Banks Town airport at 0800 hours, so radio to the hovering helicopters our decision to head towards the airfield, and, with the encouragement from the TV chopper, do a couple of tight, tight turns and diving banks over the magic Olympic Stadium, before finally changing radio frequency from the choppers to the airport frequency, and are given permission to land.
A good landing, no doubt, and then we taxi towards the designated stand on the apron, and Richard informs me there is a large crowd of people there, with big TV cameras standing out amongst the forest of microphones and digital cameras.
As we finally stop and switch off for the last time in 55 days, I take off my helmet with very mixed emotions; we have arrived, and I don't want it to be over!
Within moments we are surrounded by cameramen and reporters shouting for us to look this way and that, and firing a barrage of questions and cameras at us, and we spend the next hour and a half being interviewed and filmed and photographed, in the microlight, in front of the machine, next to it, with Dick Smith congratulating us amidst reporters from all over the world wanting to know all about us and our flight- I am struck that there are at least two Japanese reporters there, requesting meticulous information from us- age not sufficient- full date of birth
required- I add the time of day I was born, but this additional bit of hitherto unknown fact about my life appears unimportant to them.
Interview follows interview, with Catherine Crawford, the PR lady who has coordinated all this so well continually weaving her way between Richard and myself, thrusting her hot mobile phone at us every few minutes for another radio interview.
Finally, after some two hours, the Grand Central Station atmosphere dies down, and I realise it is time to go.
I unzip my flying suit, with it's long zips flowing down each side from neck to ankle, and, balancing against the side of the microlight for support as usual, start pulling my flying boot clear, then suddenly stop, realising it is over, not just another day- the LAST day- we are there!
Joy, exhaustion, jubilation, all temporarily smothered in a blanket of strange regret, so often felt by Jon and I at the end of different expeditions; life is all about the journey, not the destination. We have
arrived- a dream fulfilled, yet I am feeling momentarily almost cheated- no onward microlight flight South tomorrow, but instead a commercial flight North to Manila in the Philippines…
Richard taxi's the microlight to her hangar for the night, to be flown by him tomorrow to Newcastle where it will be packed into a container cocooned, like a chrysalis for her return to England, where, no doubt, she will once again emerge, like a beautiful butterfly, to colour the skies with her magic, enabling thousands of blind children to marvel at her beauty in the process…
Richard returns to where I am standing alone on the empty tarmac, and we pick up all our flying gear, saddle-bags and helmets for the last time together, and head off to speak at a luncheon function arranged by the Standard Chartered Bank in Sydney.
Hectic on arrival, with Jon downloading some latest pictures to use when I speak, with Richard enjoying a much-deserved beer next to us!
David Stileman, Head of Business Development back in Britain has flown up especially from Melbourne to be wth us- thank you so much David, Mervin, Peter, Richard, Joanna, Sophie for your wonderful support throughout…
After speaking there we head off to the TV studios for an interview, followed by numerous radio interviews before being invited to a local English pub nearby for several interviews with BBC TV and radio, enjoying a cold beer and then fielding some five other interviews courtesy of the pub's phone.
Dick Smith and his wife Pip then phoned to invite us for dinner, so, now early evening, with us still not even been to our hotel to dump our kit, tired as zombies but at the same time elated by the completion of our flight, we bundle ourselves into a taxi for the one hour drive to Dick's fabulous home set in isolation outside Sydney, so he doesn't disturb any neighbours taking off and landing his two personal helicopters- his daily transport is his Bell Jet Ranger, hangared under his bedroom, and his bigger Italian twin-jet turbine Augusta Power, the fastest of it's kind in the world in the nearby hangar.
His other aircraft, ranging from little microlights to a Cessna Citation
CJ3 business jet a bit further afield…
Amidst numerous phone interviews from all over the world we watched the summary of the TV news of us being broadcast around the world by the major channels, and Dick showing us his amazing little moon-buggy looking six-wheel craft he plans to drive to the South Pole, powered by huge solar panels on it's roof that would track the sun.
A great Chinese meal at a nearby restaurant followed, with us being approached and congratulated by people around us whilst I continued to field international interviews.
The day finally ends with a great mug of English tea back at Dicks, whilst he talked over his five major flights around the world, depicted on a massive map of the world in his office.
Finally reach our hotel at around 2300 hours for the first time, very, very tired yet still feeling like I had champagne fizzing through my veins, after our adrenalin-saturated day of 18 hours- one of the longest and shortest in my life, and easily one of the most memorable forever afterwards.